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Senate Panel Report Details How Russians Interfered In 2016 Elections

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Russian government targeted U.S. election infrastructure at the state and local level. And our election systems were unprepared for those attacks. That's a key finding from a Senate Intelligence Committee report that was released yesterday. And that report came at the end of a week in which Robert Mueller told Congress, among other things, that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in sweeping and systemic ways. So what does this all mean? Michael Daniel is president of Cyber Threat Alliance, and he's a former cybersecurity coordinator for President Obama. He's in studio this morning. Hi.

MICHAEL DANIEL: Great. Thank you.

KING: So we have been talking about Russian interference in our election for a couple years now. What in this Senate report is new?

DANIEL: So I actually don't think that there's a whole lot that is brand-new in this report. I think what it does is it continues to lay out the facts very clearly about the degree and the extent and the scope of Russian interference in our elections.

KING: Can you remind us of what the facts are?

DANIEL: Sure. I mean, what you see - what you can see from this report - and there are other volumes that are coming - is that the Russians conducted a three-pronged effort to interfere in our election. One, they intruded into operations like the DNC and other political campaigns and then leaked that information in a weaponized form. They attempted to intrude into state and local voter systems. For what purpose is still a little bit unclear, but they tried to do that. And they also conducted extensive social media campaigns.

KING: OK. So there was a lot that was done. Last year, you told the Senate Intelligence Committee that you didn't have a full appreciation for the scope of Russian interference until 2017, after the election. Is there anything you could've done to better understand this or anything anyone could've done?

DANIEL: I'm not entirely sure that anybody could've done more. The efforts that were going on were, in many ways, new. And they were making use of capabilities that we hadn't seen them use in this way before. I think that it is something that we will continue to see a lot more of going into the future.

KING: Robert Mueller testified before Congress this week. He did talk about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Let's have a listen to Republican Representative Will Hurd. asking Mueller a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONGRESSIONAL HEARING)

WILL HURD: In your investigation, did you think that this was a single attempt by the Russians to get involved in our election, or did you find evidence to suggest they'll try to do this again?

ROBERT MUELLER: Oh, it wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.

KING: Do you think that is true?

DANIEL: I certainly agree. I think, undoubtedly, the Russians will continue to try to interfere in our election process.

KING: How?

DANIEL: They will use multiple methods. The Russians have long conducted information operation campaigns in the West and in other places where they have interests. And I expect them to continue to do the same going forward. I would not be surprised to see them attempt to intrude into political campaigns and other operations and try to leak that information at strategic times and places for them. And I would expect them to continue to try to probe and push against the actual election infrastructure.

KING: You still work in cybersecurity. Is there anything new that you're worried about in 2020?

DANIEL: So I think that, you know, many problems in cybersecurity are not new. They're just new forms of old problems, right? And I would say that, you know, I continue to be worried about the overall resilience of our election system. You know, I'm less worried about attempts to actually change votes and more about attempts to intrude into the - and cause problems in the election infrastructure that cast doubt on the process and that undermine Americans' confidence in the electoral process.

KING: And that Senate report that was just released said no votes were changed in the last election, right?

DANIEL: That's right. I mean, we certainly have no evidence that any, you know, vote changing along those lines occurred. That's an incredibly difficult thing to pull off surreptitiously. It's much easier to simply cast doubt on the process and undermine confidence.

KING: If no votes are changed - I know that there's a line of thinking that says, yeah, but if no votes were changed, is it really that big of a deal? How do you respond to that?

DANIEL: Well, I think it is a big deal. If Americans begin to lose confidence that the process actually fairly represents their views, if, you know, causing chaos at the polls actually ends up discouraging people from voting, maybe a vote wasn't changed, but it ends up not being cast. And to me, that's a huge problem.

KING: Democrats keep bringing election security legislation in the House. And then many of their bills get knocked down or are not even taken up by the Senate. There are Republicans who argue that we have done enough to secure our elections. And they point out that the 2018 midterms were pretty calm. Do you think that they've got a point there?

DANIEL: Unfortunately, not really. I think that, clearly, the Department of Homeland Security and the state and local election officials have made enormous progress since 2016. And I think they should get full credit for the amount of effort that they've put in doing a better job in 2018 than in 2016. But technology moves forward. Times move forward. And cybersecurity is a continuous process, not a one-time investment. And so I believe that we really need to continue focusing on increasing the security of our electoral infrastructure. And that's going to be an ongoing project from here on out.

KING: And what does that - in the last minute we've got left, what does that look like specifically?

DANIEL: Well, I think that a lot of it is the nonsexy stuff, right? It's the investing in the basics of cybersecurity, securing your voter registration databases, make sure that your administrator accounts have, you know, multiple factors of authentication. This is all very boring cyber, geek, nerdy stuff. But it's the basics that needs to happen across all of these different election systems that we have in this country.

KING: Michael Daniel was cybersecurity coordinator and special assistant to President Obama. He's president now of the - of Cyber Threat Alliance. Thanks for coming in, Mr. Daniel.

DANIEL: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.